The Politics of Compilation: Around India with Sandhya Suri

How does one approach the past? Whether as a vast, uneven field, a spiral, or a stairway, spatial metaphors fail to do justice to time. Excavating memory, as well as forging history anew, are therapeutic (side) effects to all art, but cinema in its documentary mode can offer an especially strategic plunge through layers of identification, history, and social relations. The personal becomes national and universal through the eyes of Sandhya Suri, a British/Indian writer and director, whose award-winning feature I For India (2005)—an autobiographical meditation on transnational subjectivity—was screened at more than twenty international festivals. More recently, her documentary Around India with a Movie Camera (2018) sparked associations with Dziga Vertov’s experimental Man With a Movie Camera (1929). Although winking to predecessors, Suri’s film is more self-contained as it dives into collective memory, using archival film footage to recreate the history of cinema alongside the history of modern India.

Over the course of its seventy-two-minute running time, Around India with a Movie Camera juxtaposes the historical distance of archival footage with a personal story of (post)colonial identity. The pivotal question of the film can be summarized as follows: how does the past construct our identity? That is, who are we with respect to origin, context, paths, and digressions? Suri allows the images she selected to speak on their own terms, weaving a deep retrospective of one of her home countries. Transnationalism is less emphasized than it was in I For India, yet the interplay between spectatorship and authorship posits a fluid, historically subjective identity. Spectatorial perception oscillates between three poles: films as they were made in the past, along with their audiences at the time; the directorial touch in arranging their order; and our own spectatorship of the film as finished product. Masterfully orchestrated, the documentary galvanizes a politics of identification even as it provides a gentle distance for self-reflection.

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Still from Sandhya Suri’s Around India with a Movie Camera.

Opening with one of the oldest cinematic representations of India, a panorama of Calcutta from The River Ganges (1899), Around India with a Movie Camera firmly roots itself in historicism and chronological tradition. Yet if we attempt to reconstruct historical facts from documentary and trace a logical sequence of cause and effect, we lose the status of documentary film as a work of art. Suri’s film offers a journey into the past, but by no means an impersonal, objective one. We perceive the panorama with the critical distance of a supposedly postcolonial present and our current framework of global cinema. An intertitle marks the location of the filmed scene as Benares (Varanasi), which is actually four hundred miles up the Ganges river from Calcutta. Subtitles provide an authorial commentary on the misplaced location, which remained unknown to “unsuspecting audiences.” Rather than rectifying history’s mistakes, then, Suri takes on the challenge of revisiting a colonial cinematic history with understanding and forgiving humor.

In representing Indian life, the camera documents supposedly quotidian events such as bathing a baby and exhibiting traditional clothing. Yet behind a veil of everydayness lies a staging of exoticism, an essential part of the travelogue genre. Suri gives us hand-colored banana trees and anonymous silent characters, who are typified as the foreign other to be both revered and feared. Against these objects of fascination from the archival footage, the film introduces a damaged print of the Gaekwar of Baroda, otherwise known as Maharajah Sayyaji Rao III, who broke protocol by bowing and then turning his back to King George V in 1911. While this act caused him to be ostracized, today his gesture is commended by both Indian and British historians as one of dissent. This sequence of Suri’s film emphasizes commonalities between obedience and depersonification. Yet, in picking out this this act of rebellion and its potential to be read as cultural inadequacy, Suri seems to endorse a representation of India with colonial rule left intact as the Gaekwar’s walk away from the king is repeated in slow motion.

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Still from Sandhya Suri’s Around India with a Movie Camera.

This cinematographic record uses the excuse of daily life to insert epithets of unknownness, which substantialize and solidify its objects: the street scenes are “curious,” the vehicles “strange,” and individuals are often named as “the native” or simply “he.” What might be a vengeful verdict on India’s colonial past is turned into a more moderate perspective through the editing of chosen footage. Suri juxtaposes exoticized clips with ones that keep a respectful distance or make fun of a British traveler dressed in a sari, whose umbrella does not quite fit in the frame. The discourse of temporal and cultural discrepancy is paradoxically an appeal for a timeless India, which sublimates its traumatic colonial past.

The gentle way in which Suri recounts historical issues escalates as the film shifts its focus from tribes, ordinary people, and animals to government officials and politically significant events. Suri’s editing juxtaposes footage of Gandhi with images of the Himalayas, in a bit of montage that shows the Janus-face of modern and perennial India. The political edge of the film does stir up in its final minutes, as the 2.3 million Indians who fought in World War II are remembered alongside images of factory production from Bimal Roy’s Tins For India. Tin containers serve as vessels for water and materials for a roof, thus remedying India’s underdevelopment with industrialization even as the montage underscores the gap between rich and poor. We jump from the caste system to a democratizing view of modern industry, even as the relationship between hierarchy, social position, and national identity is reasserted.

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Still from Sandhya Suri’s Around India with a Movie Camera.

Suri makes the case for a social consensus built on emotional involvement, demystifying the role of cinema as a collector of times past. The work of editing, montage, and subtitling conspire to present an effect that is at once light-hearted, grave, generous, critical, and most of all empathetic. By showing archival footage outside of their time and context, Suri dislocates the boundaries of spectatorship’s dominion. At the same time, she skillfully harnesses their broad brushstrokes to paint a multi-dimensional picture of India, which is both national and universal. By explicating differences and then making peace with them, Around India offers a contemplation that cannot belong to any single person. According to Carlo Ginzburg (1989, 32), even the historian “reads into [images] what [s]he has already learned by other means, or what [s]he believes [s]he knows and wants to ‘demonstrate.’”

Suri’s historicism breaks with what has been learned, challenging what audiences today can know of the time period during which the colonial films were made. A journey that is laden with both memory and politics, Suri’s compilation is an index of the past, excavated with care and archaeological affection. Immediacy of representation is traded for an exploration that dips one finger after another in the sticky substance of national memory. Here, though, the sweet madeleine is made of grainy, fragile, black-and-white film stock. To a large extent, our global history is already conditioned by the presence and transformative potential of cinema in its various forms. Conjugating film history and political history, Around India with a Movie Camera is more than the scrapbook shown in a sequence featuring child star Sabu. Self-referencing its character as compilation, the film affirms a visuality founded on complexity, which takes into account audiences spanning temporal and cultural differences.

References

Ginzburg, Carlo. 1989. Clues, Myths, and the Historical Record. Translated by John Tedeschi and Anne C. Tedeschi. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press.